The fifth in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
Prompt: Branching Out
Within every family there’s something beyond blood that binds them ~ you know, things that “run in the family.” For good or ill it could be a particular political view; the doctrines and dogma of a certain religion or philosophy; or maybe even a keen prowess leading to participation in sports or military duty. It could be a combination. Creativity is another common thread and this is where my family lives, for beyond anything else, we must create.
From musicians to writers; visual artists (drawing, painting, photography) to those who work with crafts and needlework, a rich creative sap has been an essential nutrient in the flourishing of our family tree. We cannot thrive without it. For some members of the family a trained and disciplined talent has even provided an income for putting food on the table. I can think of several family members who, within the past two generations, have engaged their creative talents in this way. Still, this is something to explore under a separate prompt.
For now the burning question is how far back do we go to find the first documented evidence of an artist in the family tree?
The earliest reference so far belongs to our ancestor, my 11th great grandfather, Augustine Clement, (b. ca 1603, Reading, Berkshire, England; d. 1 October, 1674, Dorchester, Suffolk, Massachusetts Bay Colony), a trained painter/stainer considered by many as the “Father of American Painting.”
We are descended through his daughter, Elizabeth (1633-1687) who married William Sumner (1628-1675). Their fifth great grandson, Thomas Hunt Sumner (1791-1880), married Margaret Springer (1800-1862), daughter of Lt. Col. Daniel Springer (1764-1826), famously of Butler’s Rangers, and Ruth Fairchild (1763-1856), of another loyalist family. By this time the family was established in the hamlet of Delaware, a loyalist settlement in Upper Canada (present-day London, Ontario). Thomas and Margaret’s daughter, Ruth (b. 1825; d. unknown), married William D. Crouse (b. 1817; d. unknown) thought to be Pennsylvania Dutch, and their daughter, Mary Jane (1850-1932) married Henry Belton (1846-1931) whose family are believed to be part of the Pratt’s Hollow, NY, contingent who came up to Delaware. The Beltons demonstrated a wealth of talent as seasoned musicians, seamstresses, artists and craftsmen. Their musically-inclined oldest daughter, Mary Lewis (1881-1966) married rough and tumble Steve McDonall (1877-1949), a talented musician of Irish descent, and their second son, Stanley Lewis McDonall, my grandfather (1909-1978), who could play any instrument you put in his hand and loved to paint, married a Scottish songbird and artist, Alice Isabel Gordon (1916-1994). Their only child, my mother Lois Jeanette McDonall, (1939 and still going strong as a voice and piano teacher) enjoyed a successful opera career on the international stage. (See Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Magical Connection made by Music)
And so, who was Augustine Clement?
An article by Henry Adams in The Magazine Antiques dated September 3, 2021, offers insight into several painted works of prominent early New Englanders ~ a portrait of Dr. John Clark, physician and founder of Rhode Island among them ~ attributed to Augustine Clement and his son, Samuel. The following excerpt provides an introduction and some background. (The complete article is available through a link at the end of this post.)
Clement was born in England, probably around 1600. In his youth he was apprenticed for eight years to a decorative painter, Jonathan Miller, of Reading, England, and afterwards served four more years of apprenticeship with Edward Newman of Eton. After completing his term, Clement returned to Reading, where he worked as decorative and heraldic painter, and engaged in a lawsuit to prevent an interloper in town, James Semour, from making “drawings” and “drawn works.” In 1635 Clement left England for America, settling in Dorchester, where he is listed in various documents both as a painter and painter-stainer.
Clement is the only seventeenth-century Boston painter who is described in documents in a way that makes it clear that he was not simply a house painter but was trained through a system of apprenticeship to do figure and portrait work. From the documentary evidence, his training was at a level above any other painter in New England. In addition, documents directly link Augustine Clement with the Dr. John Clark, the subject of the earliest of the paintings from the Freake workshop. On the 20th of March 1652 Clement bought land in Boston (he is described as a “painter” in the deed), and the documents stated that Clement’s land was bounded on the north by the house and land of John Clarke. Given that Augustus Clements was a skilled painter (in fact, the only fully trained painter in Boston) and that he lived next door to John Clarke it seems likely that he was the painter of the John Clarke portrait–and thus the earliest known painter to practice his livelihood in this country.
What about the portrait of Mrs. Freake, as well as the other portraits from around 1670?
It is tempting to attribute them to Augustine Clements, as has sometimes been done in the past, but unfortunately there are two problems. First, Augustus died on October 1, 1674, the very month in which the portrait of Mrs. Freake was repainted. If Augustus was an old man on his deathbed it seems unlikely that he could have been busy repainting the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Freake. Moreover, as has already been indicated, the Freake portraits, and most of the other paintings of this group seem to be more skillfully painted than the portrait of Dr. Clark, the painting most convincingly ascribed to Augustine Clement, and their brushwork seems more refined and delicate. Yet they also possess striking affinities with the Clark portrait, in their handling of form and in their materials.
How can we explain this? Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. Augustine had a son Samuel who was also a painter, according to the testimony of contemporary documents. In an indenture for a land sale, drawn on June 21, 1695, shortly after his death, he is described as “Painter Stainer”; and an inventory of his estate taken on December 25, 1678 mentions that his “dwelling House in Boston, with Wharfe and Warehouse” contained “colouring Stuffe for painting” valued at 5 pounds.32 This is apparently the only instance in seventeenth century New England in which a father and son are both identified in documents as painters.
We can go on to conjecture that the paintings of this group, as has already been hinted, might well have been the product of a family workshop. Since Samuel surely learned his trade from his father, it’s not surprising that all the paintings of the group show a similar canon of proportion and similar materials. But differences within the group are apparent suggesting that two hands were at work. The execution of Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, for example, is more refined than that of the portrait of Dr. John Clarke. The brushwork is finer, the execution feels superior, and there is more attention to intricate details such as lace and ribbons. What’s more, the paintings of the Gibbs and Mason children show a somewhat tentative effort to move away from late medieval techniques and to master the principles of Renaissance perspective, which isn’t evident in the Clarke portrait.Excerpt from “Freake Out!” by Henry Adams, 3 September 2021, The Magazine Antiques
I love becoming acquainted with these family history nuggets. Being able to integrate the “Father of American Painting” into our artistic lineage feels like reclaiming something lost that can feed our own artistic souls. Of course, given the extent of the creative spirit in our family I’m curious to uncover the earliest reference to music, for the beautiful meshing of notes and harmonies in our family is, indeed, one potent mix of soul-nourishing sap. ❦
Stay tuned for a review of modern-day family talent.
Freake Out! by Henry Adams, 3 September 2021, The Magazine Antiques
A Study in Early Boston Portrait Attributions: Augustine Clement, Painter/Stainer of Reading, Berkshire and Massachusetts Bay by Sidney M. Gold, January-March 1968, Old-Time New England ~ A Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Ancient Buildings, Household Furnishings, Domestic Arts, Manner and Customs and Minor Antiquities of the NewEngland People ~ Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Presented by Historic New England.
Notable descendants of Augustine Clement:
Lou Hoover, First Lady to U.S. President Herbert Hoover; Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister; U.S. President George H. W. Bush and sons; Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, co-founders, The Beach Boys; Mike Love, co-founder, The Beach Boys; Alan Ladd, actor, to name a few. Source: www.famouskin.com